A petition circulated among Grundy County, Tenn., voters could create a speed bump in the long road to a new jail that officials propose to fund with a $7 million bond.
The petition's legal language and signatures are being verified by the state and local election office, officials said. State law allows 10 percent of registered voters to petition against a bond issue.
County leaders say the bond will build a jail with up to 100 beds to replace the overcrowded, 1970s-era jail that has received more than $100,000 in updates just to keep fire and safety problems at bay.
Officials say the jail, with a current capacity of 32 but regularly filled with more than 50, has not been state certified since the 1990s and needs to be replaced.
A copy of the petition was not available, officials said.
County Mayor Lonnie Cleek said he's worried the petition against the bond could backfire on taxpayers.
"Our concern is that this petition being filed will cost taxpayers more money than it would if we just constructed the jail," Cleek said Monday. He says delays mean housing costs for inmates held in other counties will keep mounting. And the county will still end up paying for a multimillion-dollar solution for its old jail.
Other jails charge Grundy between $35 and $85 a day to feed and house a single prisoner, and then the county is on the hook for transportation costs for getting them to and from court for hearings and medical expenses, Cleek said.
"No single facility can hold all those prisoners. They're going to be shotgunned all over the state," he said.
The county's debt service already earmarks funds to cover a bond to build a jail, he said.
Commissioners know that housing costs are mounting while the jail issue is being debated, Cleek said.
"I'm of the opinion that it's time to move on," District 3 Commissioner Emily Partin said. "We need to get this behind us and move forward."
Partin said the county has been lucky that state fire officials have been willing to allow the old jail to operate while a solution to overcrowding and fire and safety issues is sought.
"No one wants to spend money on something like this, but it is a necessity, and we're just going to have to do it," she said.
A notice was published in late 2010 about a $10.5 million bond issue for jail construction, but commissioners afterward rescinded the move. Instead they voted for a feasibility study that resulted in two proposals: a $7 million jail with 95 to 100 beds and offices for the sheriff's office, or a $10 million justice center with all those facilities plus space for courts.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569.